MLS 2022 salaries analysis: Highest earners, balance across

Chicago Fire attacker Xherdan Shaqiri is the new highest-paid player in Major League Soccer — at least for now.

The Swiss international is making $8.15 million in guaranteed compensation in 2022, according to the biannual league-wide list of salaries released by the MLS Players Association on Tuesday. That number is over $2 million more than the $6 million in guaranteed compensation pulled in by MLS’ second-highest earner LA Galaxy forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.

Shaqiri was signed by Chicago this winter from French club Lyon for a reported $7.5 million transfer fee. The 31-year-old has two goals and three assists in nine games for the Fire, which sit in last place in the Eastern Conference with 10 points through 11 games.

While he currently has the highest salary in MLS history, Shaqiri won’t hold that title for very long. Italian international Lorenzo Insigne will replace him atop the salary rankings when he joins Toronto FC from Napoli when the secondary transfer window opens in July. Sources told The Athletic in January that Insigne, who is not included in this edition of the MLSPA’s data, is set to earn a salary of roughly $15 million per year.

In all, the MLSPA lists 91 players as making more than $1 million in guaranteed compensation in 2022. That’s up from 78 players in 2021. It should be noted that five of those 91 players are not on an active MLS roster: Ezequiel Barco is on loan from Atlanta to River Plate, Leandro González Pírez is on loan from Miami to River Plate, Blaise Matuidi is still technically a member of Inter Miami but isn’t on the club’s active squad, Alexandru Mitriță is on loan from NYCFC to PAOK Salonika and Rodolfo Pizarro is on loan from Miami to Monterrey.

Other top paid players include Inter Miami striker Gonzalo Higuaín ($5.79 million in guaranteed compensation), Toronto FC midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo ($4.69 million), New England Revolution striker Jozy Altidore ($4.26 million, though a large portion of that is in the form of a buyout paid to him by Toronto FC this winter), Atlanta United striker Josef Martínez ($4.14 million) and LAFC forward Carlos Vela ($4.05 million).

According to the release, the average guaranteed compensation for all MLS players is $472,008, a 14 percent increase from last fall’s average of $413,998. The median guaranteed compensation is now $248,333, a 24.2 percent jump from the fall 2021 median of $200,000.

Here are some other important takeaways from the salary dump:

First, some disclaimers…

While this salary data is the only publicly available information from a primary source regarding MLS player compensation, the formula the MLSPA uses for guaranteed compensation does not give a perfectly accurate indication of what a player is making this season. Because of the way the MLSPA annualizes bonuses across the total years of a contract to get guaranteed compensation, a salary may be higher or lower in any given year across the life of the contract. In addition, these salary numbers are not the numbers at which players hit a team’s budget — that charge also includes an annualized portion of transfer or loan fees associated with an individual player.

Those transfer and loan fees are a huge line item for clubs, with high-spending squads like Atlanta reportedly dropping nearly $30 million on transfer fees just since last summer. So it’s important to remember that a team’s salary outlay as listed in the MLSPA release is not the full amount they spend on their roster.

These numbers reflect contracts as of April 15. Some players have signed new deals since then, including Vela and Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman and Hany Mukhtar. Vela reportedly agreed to a new contract with LAFC in April that will keep him at the club through at least 2023. His previous deal was set to expire on June 30. Nashville announced new contracts for Zimmerman and Mukhtar on April 29. The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio reported earlier this month that Zimmerman’s new contract will pay him $10 million over the next four years; the terms of Mukhtar’s new agreement have not been reported.

By team

Atlanta, Galaxy leading the way

Atlanta United is spending more on salaries than any other MLS team, with the club committing nearly $21 million in guaranteed compensation to players in 2022.

Not all of that money is going to players currently on Atlanta’s roster, however, with the on-loan Barco accounting for $2.2 million of the overall sum. It’s unclear how much of his salary is being picked up by River Plate.

The Galaxy is second in MLS with an overall guaranteed compensation of $20.53 million, with all of that money going to players currently on their active roster.

Miami ranks third in MLS with a team-wide guaranteed compensation of $17.55 million, though that figure is even more misleading than it is for Atlanta. Inter’s total includes Pizarro’s guaranteed compensation of $3.35 million, most of which is reportedly being covered by Monterrey, as well as $1.05 million in guaranteed compensation for González Pírez. It also accounts for $1.5 million in guaranteed compensation for Matuidi, who, though he isn’t playing for the club this season, is continuing to draw his salary. His actual pay is far higher than the $1.5 million listed by the MLSPA, as Miami hid payments to the Frenchman to try to keep him off of designated player (DP) status. Club owner Jorge Mas told The Athletic last spring that Matuidi was truly making north of $5 million per year. MLS punished Miami for the violation last May.

New England ($18.14 million) and Chicago ($17.65 million) round out the top five spenders, though the Revolution’s total is inflated by the MLSPA listing Altidore’s guaranteed compensation at more than $4 million. Altidore’s actual salary is reportedly $1.6125 million this season, a portion of which is being paid by Toronto FC. TFC bought him out of his previous contract for a reported total of $4.5 million this winter. Chicago’s total doesn’t include the salary for new designated player Jairo Torres, who debuted for the Fire this past weekend after joining the club on a $6 million transfer from Liga MX side Atlas.

Seattle Sounders ($16.98 million), New York City FC ($15.54 million), Toronto FC ($15.21 million), FC Dallas ($15.03 million) and Columbus ($14.98 million) fill out the rest of the top 10 in guaranteed compensation, though Toronto will almost certainly move to the top of the rankings once Insigne’s substantial salary is counted.

Portland surprisingly near the bottom

At the other end, it will no doubt catch some by surprise to see the Portland Timbers with the third-lowest payroll in the entire league. The Timbers have an overall guaranteed compensation of $11.31 million, less than every team except for expansion Charlotte FC and Real Salt Lake, which will move past Portland once the salaries of new DP Jefferson Savarino and recent re-acquisition Anderson Julio are taken into consideration. Portland, which ranked 13th in payroll last spring, 17th last fall and made MLS Cup in December, shed a little more than $1.5 million in salary this offseason by parting ways with Diego Valeri and re-signing Sebastian Blanco to a cheaper contract.

RSL, which was bought last year by a group headlined by David Blitzer and Ryan Smith, isn’t the only team with new owners to place near the bottom of the salary rankings. Houston, which was purchased last summer by Ted Segal, and Orlando, acquired last year by the Wilf family, rank 22nd and 24th, respectively, in guaranteed compensation. Houston’s position should rise once the likely substantial salary of Mexican international Hector Herrera, who will join the Dynamo this summer, is added to their total. Charlotte slotting in at 27th, ahead of only RSL, is also surprising considering the immense wealth of owner David Tepper, whose net worth is reportedly higher than any other individual owner in MLS.

Total salary, by team

Rank Team Guaranteed compensation (millions)

1

$20.99

2

$20.13

3

Miami

$18.88

4

$18.14

5

$17.65

6

$16.98

7

$15.54

8

$15.21

9

$15.03

10

$14.98

11

LAFC

$14.56

12

$13.79

13

$13.75

14

Kansas City

$13.63

15

Montreal

$12.92

16

$12.84

17

D.C.

$12.48

18

$11.95

19

$11.81

20

RBNY

$11.73

21

$11.71

22

$11.55

23

$11.54

24

$11.51

25

$11.39

26

$11.31

27

$10.71

28

$10.47

Biggest payroll increases

Apart from New England, whose total is misleadingly boosted by the MLSPA putting Altidore’s entire contract on their books, no team had a greater increase in spending from last fall to this spring than Chicago. Most of their $4.61 million increase in payroll can be attributed to the addition of Shaqiri. Seattle and Dallas also added significantly to their payrolls this winter, with guaranteed compensation rising nearly 25 percent from last fall at both clubs. Most of the Sounders’ rise is due to the addition of new DP Albert Rusnak, who is making $1.87 million in guaranteed compensation. FCD’s jump is due to the offseason addition of Paul Arriola, whose guaranteed compensation is listed at $1.13 million, and new DP contract for Jesús Ferreira, who got a bump in pay from $550,000 to $1.50 million over the winter.

Comparison to other leagues

While there have been modest gains compared to last year, these totals of course still pale in comparison to those of the English Premier League, where low spenders Sheffield United had more than triple the payroll of Atlanta during the 2020-21 season, the last for which noted football business blogger Swiss Ramble has data. The financial figures aren’t as astronomical in France, but even Ligue 1 paces far ahead of MLS in spending. Paris St. Germain sits in a universe of its own, but the 19 other clubs in Ligue 1 averaged $70 million in salary outlay in the 2020-21 season. Nimes, the lowest spender in that campaign, eclipsed Atlanta’s salary outlay by nearly $5 million in 2020-21. The EFL Championship is a similar story, with all but the bottom-five spenders in the English second-division splashing more on salaries in 2020-21 than any team in MLS at present.

Other notes

• NYCFC and Columbus lead the league with 10 players on their active rosters making more than the maximum budget charge of $612,500 in guaranteed compensation. Dallas, the Galaxy and San Jose all have nine players above that threshold. Vancouver has the fewest such players in the league with just three; Montreal has just four.

• Average guaranteed compensation per team is now at $14.06 million, up 5 percent from $13.38 million last fall.

• When comparing salary spending and results, there are a few clear winners and losers. Montreal (currently leading the East at time of writing), Philadelphia and Orlando are all getting good mileage for the money, while league-leading LAFC is outperforming their 11th-place ranking in guaranteed compensation. Miami and Chicago, which currently occupy the bottom two spots in the East, respectively, are getting brutal returns in comparison.

By player

Biggest earners not performing

A large portion of the highest-paid players in MLS are falling significantly short of the expectations created by their hefty salaries.

With his two goals and three assists in nine regular season appearances, Shaqiri isn’t producing near the level one would expect from the highest-paid player in MLS history, though his time in Chicago has only just begun.

The same cannot be said for Inter Miami striker Gonzalo Higuain. The third highest-paid player in the league with a guaranteed compensation of $5.79 million, the 34-year-old Argentine has two goals and one assist in five regular season starts this year, and has fallen out of the lineup over the last six weeks. The team is 0-4-1 with a -10 goal differential in his five starts and 3-2-1 with an even goal difference in the six matches he hasn’t been in the XI. 21-year-old striker Leo Campana, who is on loan from Wolverhampton and is being paid just $135,680 by Miami, has thrived in Higuaín’s place, recording five goals and two assists in six starts since Higuain left the lineup.

Other players who are struggling to live up to their pay include FC Dallas striker Franco Jara ($3.23 million), new Galaxy winger Douglas Costa ($3 million), Minnesota striker Adrien Hunou ($2.69 million), Fire midfielder Gastón Gimenez ($2.36 million), Cincinnati striker Brenner ($2.22 million), D.C. midfielder Edison Flores ($1.73 million), Galaxy winger Kevin Cabral ($1.65 million) and D.C. striker Ola Kamara ($1.52 million), all of whom rank in the top-50 in the league in guaranteed compensation. Additional eyebrow-raising deals include those for Montreal striker Bjorn Johnsen ($1.24 million), Nashville attacker Ake Loba ($1.49 million) and Charlotte FC attacker Yordy Reyna ($797,500).

Some players who have provided excellent value thus far this year include Austin midfielder Diego Fagundez ($450,000 in guaranteed compensation), Columbus winger Derrick Etienne ($175,000), LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau ($302,500) LAFC center back Mamadou Fall ($118,750), Minnesota goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair ($321,875), Minnesota midfielder Kervin Arriaga ($103,667), Montreal center back Joel Waterman ($133,909), New York Red Bulls midfielder Omir Fernandez ($155,000), New York Red Bulls left back John Tolkin ($105,000), and Seattle’s outside backs Nouhou ($344,274) and Alex Roldan ($232,500). Djordje Mihailovic ($751,875 in guaranteed compensation), Taty Castellanos ($1.08 million) and Cristian Roldan ($981,542) are all paid well, but their contributions in recent seasons and so far this year have outpaced their current salaries.

Highest earners in MLS (Spring 2022)

Rank Team Player Guaranteed comp.

1

Chicago Fire

$8.15

2

LA Galaxy

$6

3

Inter Miami

$5.79

4

Toronto FC

$4.69

5

New England Revolution

$4.26

6

Atlanta United

$4.14

7

LAFC

$4.05

8

Atlanta United

$3.94

9

Columbus Crew

$3.70

10

New England Revolution

$3.55

11

Seattle Sounders FC

$3.26

12

FC Dallas

$3.23

13

Seattle Sounders FC

$3.20

14

Montreal

$3.09

15

LA Galaxy

$3

16

Minnesota United

$2.69

17

New England Revolution

$2.68

18

Chicago Fire

$2.36

19

Toronto FC

$2.35

20

Atlanta United

$2.33

21

Austin FC

$2.32

22

Vancouver Whitecaps

$2.27

23

Charlotte FC

$2.26

24

FC Cincinnati

$2.22

25

FC Cincinnati

$2.22

*Altidore’s actual salary is reportedly $1.6125 million this season, a portion of which is being paid by Toronto FC. TFC bought him out of his previous contract for a reported total of $4.5 million this winter. 

Top-heavy or well-balanced?

Not only is Shaqiri the new highest-paid player in MLS — he also makes up a whopping 46 percent of the Fire’s salary expenditure.

That percentage will drop when Torres’ salary hits the books, but no other player is afforded even close to as high a rate of his team’s total payroll. In fact, only two players (Higuaín and Pozuelo) make at least 30 percent of their team’s wage bill. The teams who have the lowest rate of investment in one player include San Jose (Jamiro Monteiro; 11.2 percent) and three of the league’s best in NYCFC (Martins; 12.6 percent), Red Bulls (Ashley Fletcher; 13.4 percent) and Philadelphia Union (Mikael Uhre; 13.4 percent).

MLS spending balance by team (Spring 2022)

Team Top paid % ➡️ top 1 % ➡️ top 3 % ➡️ top 5

Josef Martínez

19.7

49.6

63.6

​​Sebastian Driussi

16.9

41.4

53.5

Karol Świderski

21.1

38

49.7

Xherdan Shaqiri

46.2

67.2

77.8

Luciano Acosta

16.1

41.3

57.5

Gyasi Zardes

13.6

27.8

40

Lucas Zelarayan

24.7

44.1

55.4

Franco Jara

21.5

40.1

53.6

D.C.

Edison Flores

13.9

39.2

53.1

Sebastian Ferreira

17.1

36.3

47.4

LAFC

Carlos Vela

27.8

44

56.6

Javier Hernandez

29.2

51.9

60.9

Miami

Gonzalo Higuain

30.7

56.4

66.4

Adrien Hunou

20.9

36.7

49.2

Montreal

Victor Wanyama

23.9

40.4

50.6

Hany Mukhtar

14

36.6

52.3

Jozy Altidore

23.5

57.8

69.5

Thiago Martins

12.6

28.7

43

NYRB

Ashley Fletcher

13.4

33.1

47.8

Ercan Kara

16.2

36.2

51

Mikael Uhre

13.4

30.6

45.6

Yimmi Chara

15.9

39.7

54.9

RSL

Damir Kreilach

14.8

31.5

44.3

Jamiro Monteiro

11.2

30.2

44.3

Nicolas Lodeiro

19.2

49

64.7

KC

Alan Pulido

16.1

39.1

53.3

Alejandro Pozuelo

30.8

56.2

69.7

Ryan Gauld

19

38

48.1

While the Fire have shown far greater ambition under Joe Mansueto than in the recent past, their outlay comes to an outsized extent at the top of their roster. Chicago spends nearly 78 percent of its payroll on five players (Shaqiri, Gimenez, Rafael Czichos, Kacper Przybylko and Boris Sekulic). Only two other teams (New England and Toronto) allot more than two-thirds of their wages among their top-earning quintet, though those two require a caveat with the aforementioned Altidore complication.

On the reverse end, Colorado’s deal to acquire Gyasi Zardes from Columbus late in the primary transfer window gave the Rapids their only seven-figure earner. Despite this, Colorado still has the most balanced investment across the entire roster by budgeting 40 percent of their salary expenditure among five players. NYCFC has the second-lowest outlay to their top-five highest earners, a group that includes the on-loan Mitrita.

If you’re looking for what constitutes league-average balance in 2022, it makes sense to focus on the ten clubs in the middle of the pack. If round numbers are more your speed, the median MLS team in 2022 spends 18 percent of their overall wage bill on their most expensive player, 39.5 percent on their top three players (likely their DPs) and 53.2 percent of their entire salary expenditure on their five highest earners.

This is, of course, very much by design. MLS roster rules are set up in such a way that teams are able to spend a hugely disproportionate amount of their total salary outlay on their three highest earners. That doesn’t necessarily make for the most efficient path to raising the quality of soccer in the league, but it does maintain a high degree of competitive balance, something MLS prioritizes hugely.

Unbalanced spending on the field

Let’s start by clarifying that there are no typos on this table. Thanks to the Zardes trade, Columbus Crew really closed the window with under two percent of its payroll devoted to forwards.

MLS spending balance by position

Team G.comp.* % to GK+DEF % to MID % to FWD

$20.99

18.16

38.87

42.97

$13.75

24.25

28.14

47.61

$10.71

33.83

28.55

37.62

$17.65

22.86

67.22

9.92

$13.79

23.59

46.58

29.83

$11.39

35.87

34.85

29.28

$14.98

33.72

64.92

1.36

$12.48

30.82

32.93

36.25

D.C.

$15.03

28.56

24.15

47.29

$11.55

42.01

16.89

41.1

LAFC

$13.63

34.29

24.57

41.13

LAG

$20.53

22.08

30.37

47.55

Miami

$14.56

25.9

25.86

48.24

$18.88

25.08

39.49

35.42

Montreal

$12.84

32.47

31.72

35.81

$12.92

21.95

54.33

23.72

$11.71

28.38

49.9

21.72

$18.14

17.33

37.29

45.38

RBNY

$15.54

38.42

34.45

27.13

$11.51

29.57

29.81

40.62

$11.81

38.1

29.28

32.62

$11.31

23.96

51.47

24.58

RSL

$11.73

37.76

22.57

39.67

$10.48

31.16

38.6

30.24

$16.98

29.14

34.57

36.3

SKC

$16.98

18.24

51.61

30.15

$15.21

35.82

49.89

14.29

$11.95

28.52

43.76

27.71

As the entire world of soccer has rebranded their “wide midfielders” as wingers, the line between midfielders and forwards has never been harder to identify. Some teams take a cop-out in their listings, classifying players as “M-F” or “F-M.” In cases where players weren’t sorted into one position group, we trusted team websites to give a definitive answer. That helps keep teams like the Galaxy from bloating on forwards, as they classify Douglas Costa, known across the world as a winger, as a midfielder. So it goes.

Trading Zardes didn’t only give the Rapids their new top earner — it also cleared Columbus of 88 percent of their spending on forwards. The Crew only lists Miguel Berry ($120,000 in guaranteed compensation) and Erik Hurtado ($84,000) in the position group, with all of their wingers lumped into the midfield. While no other team comes close to investing as little in any area of the field, it was surprising to see NYCFC at the lowest absolute among defenders (17.3 percent) despite allowing the fourth-fewest goals to date this year and having a DP center back on the books in Thiago Martins.

Houston assembled the league’s most pennywise midfield, with a 16.9 percent outlay that doesn’t look like a liability thanks to budget-friendly options like Adalberto Carrasquilla ($469,132 in guaranteed compensation), Memo Rodriguez ($310,935) and Matías Vera ($622,812). Herrera’s impending arrival will almost certainly bring the Dynamo into line with the rest of the league’s midfield spending.

MLS is often dinged for a low standard of defending, which is largely reflected in the group-by-group breakdown. Factoring for goalkeepers as well as those along the backline, at least 40 percent of a team’s roster usually falls in this category. Despite this, 19 of the league’s 28 teams spend less than a third of their wage bill in the defensive third. Only one team eclipses 40 percent: Houston, at 42 percent with Teenage Hadebe and Tim Parker both among the club’s three highest-earners. Compare that to the midfield (nine teams above 40 percent) and forwards (also nine teams above 40 percent) and the disparity is clear to see.

The median MLS team spends 28.9 percent of their salary outlay on goalkeepers and defenders, 34.7 percent on midfielders and 35.6 percent on forwards.

MLS highest-paid XI

GK: Eloy Room ($883,000)
RB: DeAndre Yedlin ($848,750)
CB: Carlos Salcedo ($2.35 milion)
CB: Thiago Martins ($1.96 million)
LB: Ronald Matarrita ($806,875)
DM: Victor Wanyama ($3.09 million)
CM: Carles Gil ($3.54 million)
RW: Carlos Vela ($4.05 million)
10: Alejandro Pozuelo ($4.69 million)
LW: Xherdan Shaqiri ($8.15 million)
ST: Chicharito ($6 million)

Total wage bill for MLS FC: $36.4 million

*All numbers are guaranteed compensation

(Photo: Rich von Biberstein / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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